When a person's first sexual experience is abuse, that person may later associate sexual arousal with those same feelings of fear and disempowerment. Psychologists agree that sexual abuse can affect a person's sexual health. Touch, even in the context of a loving adult relationship, may trigger memories and sensations of the original abuse, causing feelings that seriously interfere with pleasure. According to Wendy Maltz, MSW, in The Sexual Healing Journey, "People who have been sexually abused may also avoid sex or see it as an obligation. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, some people seek sex compulsively." They often may have negative feelings associated with touch, such as fear, guilt, shame and anger, which may not emerge until they are in a stable relationship.
Sexual abuse is not only a betrayal of human trust and affection, but it is an attack on a person’s sexuality. Our sexuality is the most intimate, private aspect of who we are. Our sexuality has to do with how we feel about being male or female, and how comfortable we are with our body, our genitals, and our sexual thoughts, expressions, and relationships.
Sexual energy is a powerful, very natural force in our lives. But like any natural force we encounter – be it wind, sun, rain, or our own laughter – our sexual energy has the potential to be channeled and experienced in destructive or life-affirming ways. Healthy sex involves the conscious, positive expression of our sexual energy in ways that enhance self-esteem, physical health, and emotional relationship. It is mutually beneficial and harms no one.
If your friend was sexually abused – whether s/he suffered a gentle seduction by a loved relative or a violent rape by a stranger – her/his view and experience of sexuality are affected by what happened. The good news is that a variety of effective healing techniques now exist to help survivors overcome the sexual repercussions caused by abuse.
How Do I Know There’s a Problem?
The ten most common sexual symptoms of sexual abuse are:
1. Avoiding or being afraid of sex
2. Approaching sex as an obligation
3. Experiencing negative feelings such as anger, disgust, or guilt with touch
4. Having difficulty becoming aroused or feeling sensation
5. Feeling emotionally distant or not present during sex
6. Experiencing intrusive or disturbing sexual thoughts and images
7. Engaging in compulsive or inappropriate sexual behaviors
8. Experiencing difficulty establishing or maintaining an intimate relationship
9. Experiencing vaginal pain or orgasmic difficulties
10. Experiencing erectile or ejaculatory difficulties
What To Do?
Your friend may simply need a safe place to explore his/her thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Sometimes cultural, family, and religious values can create internal conflicts for folks wrestling with these identity questions. Your friend may be sensitive to any perceived disapproval or judgments you might have, or may feel such shame or confusion that s/he is trying to maintain secrecy or a “double life.” You can help by being supportive, non-judgmental, and not assuming you know everything about your friend’s sexuality.